Any dog can make a wonderful family pet providing the whole family are consistent in the training and socialisation of the dog, and there are boundaries introduces for everyone to follow, including the dog. In these circumstances you’ll have a dog that’s a joy to be around, and that teaches your children respect for animals, the importance of learning, and responsibility of care.
On the flip side, a dog that doesn’t get the correct training and socialisation especially during puppyhood, can be a terror in the house. Children can be herded, scared and bitten if they don’t learn how to interact with a dog properly and this can lead to the destruction of the dog after an unnecessary accident. So how do we avoid this?
Starting on the right paw
The correct socialisation and habituation is vital in the first weeks your puppy joins your family and choosing a good training school is a critical decision. Many puppy schools provide ‘puppy parties’ where many dogs are let off lead at once and allowed to chase, bite and intimidate each other which only serves to create bullies and victims, neither of which you want to encourage.
If you are based in Swindon, please consider the Puppy Programme from Abbey Dog Training. They provide small classes of no more than 4 dogs so you get time to ask all the questions you’ll inevitably have, and whilst puppy play with well-matched dogs may be included, its not the focus of their training. You’ll learn how to properly socialise your puppy to the world, so they aren’t obsessed with bouncing all over other dogs (which is what happens if you over-socialise them as a puppy), and that leads to a lifetime of hard work that you don’t want! While their classes are a little more expensive than other ‘puppy schools’, they are excellent and you’ll save a fortune in the long run by avoiding lots of behaviour consultations caused by improper puppy socialisation.
The dog is not a toy
While it may seem that this advice is aimed at the children of the family, it also applies to the dads!
Firstly, some advice for the dads… No rough play with your dog! While it may be fun to rough-house the dog rolling around on the floor, it encourages mouthing and biting behaviours, and you don’t want your dog transferring these ‘skills’ he’s learned with you to the children. Gentle stroking and cuddles are fine when the dog is relaxed and happy to accept them, but pushing, jaw-wrestling and rolling over are not appropriate.
Instead of rough-housing, try some tug of war games instead if you want some more animated play. You both need to win 50% of the time, and if the dog gets too close to your hand just drop the toy. Forget all the now-disproved ideas you may have heard about this causing dominance – it’s twaddle!
Now some guidelines for the children. The dog is not a horse to be ridden, seat, hair model, dress up mannequin or an inanimate object that you can walk all over. I’ve seen countless ‘cute’ videos of small children climbing over dogs, pulling tails and ears, standing on them, and using them as another teddy in their toy box.
To the untrained eye these videos appear to be adorable, but to me, and to any dog behaviourist, we will likely spot the subtle signs of a dog who is not enjoying the activity. While some dogs will tolerate this for a while, they all have a breaking point. If they are over-tired or in pain that point will come a lot sooner and that’s when children get bitten.
Tips to keep your child safe around a dog
- Never leave your dog on his or her own with your child. Realistically, you will not be able to actively supervise your dog and the children in your home all the time. If active supervision is not possible, you must separate them – If you need to pop to the car or prep lunch for a few minutes, put the dog in a different room behind a closed door or dog guard, or in a crate while you can’t supervise them. Bite incidents can happen in seconds, so it’s safest to avoid the risk.
- Encourage only gentle stroking – no pulling, grabbing, heaving patting or sitting on! Teach your child how to ask a dog if it wants to be petted. When they are awake call them to you as opposed to approaching them. If they approach confidently, then this is there way of saying ‘yes’ and if they stay where they are, they are politely declining your invitation and you can try again later. This is a really simple exercise that you can invite visiting children to carry out (once they are old enough to understand your instruction) and it enables your dog or puppy a choice in the matter too.
- Teach your child when it is safe to interact with a dog. They need to know that you do not approach or pat a dog if it:
- is eating, sleeping or has a toy
- is in its bed, or under a chair or table
- is sick or injured
- is trying to move away
- belongs to a stranger
- Remember that there is no completely safe breed of dog. While general breed characteristics can predict possible aggression, any breed of dog can be dangerous. Tell them that dogs don’t like running and screaming or someone staring into their eyes.
- Explain dog body language to your child. They need to understand when a dog is happy, angry or scared. If you aren’t sure yourself, please speak to a dog trainer or behaviourist for advice. Abbey Dog Training include this as part of their puppy programme. The RSPCA also have some useful posters on their website. https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/dogs/company/children
Who walks the dog?
When your kids get a bit older and more responsible, it’s tempting to get them to take the dog out for a walk on their own, but there are some important points to note here.
On a number of occasions I’ve only just avoided hitting a dog walking along a path by a road. Each time a child was in control of an unlocked extending lead, and let it run out in front of traffic. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, if you are a parent or guardian of a child under the age of 16 years old, you are responsible for any animal that child looks after, even if you aren’t physically with them. If your dog was to be injured or killed in an accident like this, it’s a terrible responsibility to place on a child. Are they experienced enough, both physically and emotionally, to deal with anything that might happen?
On a selfish note, I don’t want to be responsible for killing or injuring a dog and have to live with that memory for the rest of my life, or for causing an accident that may harm others by having to swerve to avoid a dog in the road.
Please think carefully before letting a child be responsible for your family pet.
Consistency is key
Even older children (and some adults!) can be excitable and inconsistent, over-stimulating the puppy one minute, and then telling it off (and often hitting it) the next for being too exuberant. Children (and puppies) are not known for their patience, so both need to be taught how to be gentle with each other.
Dog bite injuries are a risk when you have children and dogs together, but with the right boundaries and education but most of these injuries are preventable so your dog can be a much-loved member of the family.